LONDON -- It was the deepest American marathon team in decades, or so some people thought. In the Olympics, where East African powers Kenya and Ethiopia can field only three runners apiece, this was a chance for an experienced U.S. trio to build some international standing and perhaps a bit more popularity back home.
It began to feel like things were going wrong before the 26.2-mile trek through London's landmarks even got started on one of the hottest mornings of the Games. (When the gun went off, it was 71 degrees, and the mercury kept rising.) Also steaming was Meb Keflezighi, who felt disrespected when he was left out of a pre-race introduction of several runners to watch.
Keflezighi, the 2009 New York City Marathon winner, was the only man in the field of more than 100 who already had an Olympic medal to his name (silver in 2004). Ten men were selected to stand out in a row in front of the rest, including American Ryan Hall, who finished second to Keflezighi at the Olympic trials in January.
"Shame on IAAF," Keflezighi said, referring to track and field's governing body. "To not be introduced like that, it definitely hurts."
Keflezighi likely ran for the next 2 hours 11 minutes and 6 seconds with a chip on his shoulder. After finishing fourth, he quickly brought up the snub, unprovoked, in not one but two post-race interviews. The three men who had bettered him -- Ugandan gold medalist Stephen Kiprotich (2: 08:01) and Kenyans Abel Kirui (2:08:27) and Wilson Kipsang (2:09:37) -- had been on the introduction line.
Kiprotich, who ran his first marathon in 2011 as a pace setter, captured Uganda's first Olympic medal since 1996 and first track and field gold since 1972.
Though a medal was a possibility, hopes for a first Olympic title by a U.S. marathoner since Frank Shorter in 1972 were going to be slim. They were all but squashed around mile 11.
First, Ryan Hall, who had finished tenth in tougher conditions in Beijing, walked off the course holding his tight right hamstring. "I've never DNF'd a race before, so this is a first for me," he said. "Not finishing a race is not an option unless I think I'm going to do serious damage to my career."
Two minutes later, BBC's coverage showed Abdi Abdirahman staggering on the side of the road, his jersey bunched up. Abdirahman said his right knee had popped two miles earlier and he couldn't take the pain anymore. It was an aggravation of an existing injury, but the man they call the Black Cactus said it hadn't hindered him during a 20-mile run a week and a half ago.
"I don't know the last time I dropped out of a race, to be honest," said Abdirahman, a four-time Olympian. He said he'd get an MRI, and if he's healthy, he expects to compete in a fall marathon.
That left Keflezighi to carry the U.S. hopes, but he was 17th at the halfway mark. The situation looked dire and it left one reporter scrambling to find the last time an American team had performed this poorly at an Olympics: 2000, when lone member Rod De Haven finished 67th. But Keflezighi steadily improved, moving into 14th at mile 15, then to 10th at mile 18 and sixth at mile 21 before making his last ditch push in the final mile-and-a-half.
"Coming here I told my wife, 'I have a feeling I'm going to finish fourth,'" Keflezighi said. "It's not where you want to be sometimes, but fourth place at my last Olympics -- I'll take it anytime."
Of all the countries with the maximum three men entered, only Kenya, Ethiopia and Eritrea had fielded a better group of personal bests going in. All three Ethiopians dropped out, marking the first time that the nation of distance legends Abebe Bikila and Haile Gebrselassie had sent marathoner's to an Olympics and did not have a men's finisher. One of the Kenyans, Emmanuel Mutai, finished 17th. So a spot on the podium was there for an American's taking.
"We didn't maximize our talent, but it's a tough race," said Keflezighi's coach, Bob Larsen. "All you need is one guy to keep momentum going to show, hey, American guys can run."
This marathon was likely the Olympic farewell for Keflezighi, 37, and Abdirahman, 35. Hall is just 29 and will keep going.
To the casual fan, the London Olympic marathon lacked star power. Kenyan Sammy Wanjiru was only 21 years old when he won in Olympic record time in Beijing -- 2:06.32 (the previous was record was pedestrian by comparison: 2:09.21). Wanjiru was also the youngest Olympic marathon champion since 1932. Less than three years later, he found dead, lying face up below his balcony,
Former world record holder Gebrselassie, 39, who was not chosen to compete for Ethiopia, critiqued his country's selection procedure from a director's chair while doing analysis for the BBC. Gebrselassie didn't have much of a case for himself after dropping out of the 2010 New York City Marathon, retiring, unretiring, and failing to finish the 2011 Berlin Marathon. He completed February's Tokyo Marathon, but in fourth place and three minutes slower than three other Ethiopians had run in Dubai in January.
The man who broke the great Gebrselassie's world record, Patrick Makau, was passed over not once but twice by Athletics Kenya. Makau, 27, set the new mark of 2:03.38 in September 2011. He said he had been promised an Olympic spot after that performance and went into April's London Marathon not expecting to run the whole 26.2 miles because it was so close to the Olympics. He didn't, pulling out at mile 11 with a minor hamstring injury, and then was left off Kenya's Olympic team. When one of its three runners pulled out due to injury, Makau, again, did not hear his name called as a replacement.
Neither did Keflezighi in the minutes before Sunday's race, nor did Hall and Abdirahman after it. A chance to break into the East African marathon Olympic medal dominance passed.
"It is a missed opportunity," Abdirahman said. "We'll meet again."